Thursday, May 17, 2007

UBC BoG committee approves transit tunnel for U-Boulevard.

If you're a new reader and would like some background, refer to a few earlier posts:
The AMS and U-boulevard and What's UBC Properties Trust? (clickies)

Yesterday, the Board of Governors' Property and Planning committee carried a motion to approve the construction of the tunnel that is to lead to the underground bus loop - an integral part of the U-Blvd development project. This pretty much guarantees the future of the underground bus loop, if the motion passes in the general BoG meeting on Tuesday. Traditionally, all BoG members attend the committee meetings, and the whole board rubber stamps their decision officially in the general meeting. That means, unless a dramatic turnaround occurs before Tuesday, that students can come to terms with the fact that an underground bus loop is coming. UBC Properties trust will start construction of the tunnel and utilities located along U-Blvd will this summer.

Everything in the U-Blvd project above the ground is a different story though. The unpopular design plan, that features shops, market housing, and a paved square in place of the grassy knoll, may not be similar to the final product at all, gaging by the Board's comments. The Board uniformly felt moved and disturbed by the 2500 signature student petition, and AMS policy, recently brought to bear against the current design. AMS VP Academic Brendon Goodmurphy (after being incorrectly introduced by the chair as the "AVP External") had the opportunity to give the board a presentation about the petition and AMS policy. He did this clearly, outlining student's concerns, the petition and the policy (which both call upon the board to refrain from making further decisions until meaningful consultation has occurred), and the AMS's intentions to move forward and cooperate with the board to make a revised plan happen.

At the proposal of Nancy Knight, from the campus community and planning office, the board agreed to begin a new consultation process around the above-ground portion of the project, to begin in September when students return for fall term and to be concluded in November. This consultation is to be modeled like the "what's the plan?" consultation which is largely regarded as thorough and satisfactory. This is very exciting - we will see how serious this process will be come September.

President Toope admitted that consultation for the above-ground plans had been rushed and insufficient due to the lateness of their completion (for example, they were only presented to the AMS council last week). He cited juggling design and budget as a major roadblock to the timely design of the project. His comments were extremely sympathetic to students' concerns about the design of the above-ground plan: "Our desire is to re-engage," said Toope, saying that the space "should be an enhancement to community life" and needs students' support. However, the President was staunchly convinced that beginning construction of the underground tunnel and loop would not adversely effect the "re-engagement" or overhaul of the above-ground design. He cited some detailed Translink studies, and the OCP, which respectively recommend and obligate UBC to build a transportation hub in the particular location of U-Blvd and East Mall. Toope said that while the above-ground design has been problematic, and subject to many iterations already, the underground bus loop has been well-planned and studied over ten years since the OCP mandated it in 1996. BoG student reps Darren Peets and Jeff Friedrich raised some questions about whether an underground loop meets the long-term transport needs of the campus, and also questioned whether sustainability objectives of the project were justified. Would the residents of the new neighborhoods use the loop? Is a central station preferable to various routes around campus?

The board in general seemed more eager to make up to "outside commitments" (translink, neighborhoods association, OCP,) than actually look at the essential aims for the project: sustainability and building community. They were also very eager to "move forward" such that when OCP evaluation comes up this year (as every five years) they will have something to show - since the underground bus loop is mentioned in the OCP, and there has been no action. Personally, I was unimpressed by the fire under their asses because of this OCP review. The purpose of the review review, and maybe even change, not to enforce. Jeff Friedrich made the point that simply going forward for the sake of going forward (or to satisfy outside commitments) was unwise when the basic purpose and vision of the project are in question. He also questioned the importance of the commitment to the Neighborhoods given that they will not be using the facility nearly as much as others, having bus stops nearer to their residences.

Both the staff and faculty Board representatives were not comfortable going forward with the underground portion until the whole design was consulted, reviewed and approved. They preferred to move ahead as a whole, after gaining the endorsement of students and community members. This means, as Margaret Orlowski pointed out to me yesterday, that the faculty students and staff reps (ie. the elected members of the people that populate the university) were all against going forward now, while the provincial appointees were in favor.

Essentially though, this is a serious victory for students. Though the committee indeed carried the motion for the tunnel and utilities, and construction will begin as soon as the BoG approves it, they were strongly affected by the petition and Brendon's presentation about the AMS policy. Their commitment to delay the process again in order to gain real feedback and make changes is very positive. So keep you ears open in November when the consultation finishes. And congratulations to the good people behind the petition for their achievement! (They were out in full force at the meeting yesterday, sporting snazzy t-shirts). It remains to be seen how much the design for the "university square" will end up changing to reflect the priorities of students at the end of the newly created consultation process. These priorities are basically green space, informal study/social space, synergy with the SUB and its renewal process, and local/ethical services. The reason students are mostly still unimpressed with the plan, is that despite some public viewings and feedback sessions, it seems like no substantial changes have actually been made to accommodate these goals. As Jeff says, "student concerns have been consistent, and have remained unaddressed." Essentially, the consultation since the 2005 architectural contest has amounted to "do you like it?"

That said, the Board, especially President and the chair of the Property and Planning committee seems to have taken the message to heart this time, at least in the scope of student dissatisfaction with the above-ground design. There is an opportunity here to create a really special centre for the university. Part of the AMS and GSS policies toward University Boulevard is to work together with the university to mobilize students in a useful way -whether that be in a consultative or design capacity. Hopefully we can do it right together.

Note: Weirdly, nobody at the Board responds to each other - there is no "debate". Even if they disagree, they will not engage directly with another person, rather stating their position as if they were speaking to some random audience. The only time people actually speak to each other is when there's a direct appeal for information. Quite a different style from AMS!!